Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (Soulpepper)

Photo of cast from It's a Wonderful LifeSoulpepper Theatre brings the Christmas classic to the Toronto stage

For the holidays, Soulpepper Theatre returns to the St Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts to present the stage version of the Christmas movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Staged as a 1940s era radio play complete with live sound effects and vintage commercials, George Bailey’s Christmas miracle story is brought to life and your family will love it.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a festive person and I don’t partake in much holiday revelry. I also tend to avoid theatre at this time of year for much of the same reasons. What drew me to It’s a Wonderful Life was the radio play aspect of it — something I’ve always found fascinating.

In this version of the story, the audience watches a cast and crew of immaculately timed and syncopated actors read and emote the story into vintage microphones, accompanied by live piano music and man-made sound effects. From shoes clacking on a wooden board to rustling plastic and quick hand claps for a roaring fire, the live sound effects give this performance much added character.

Soulpepper’s production is just like the 1946 classic by Frank Capra in which an angel, Clarence (Oliver Dennis), intervenes in the life of troubled and desperate business man George Bailey (Gregory Prest), showing him what life for those around him would be like if he never existed.

I’ll also admit here that I’ve never seen the original movie. Frankly, your familiarity with the movie is not necessary to appreciate this stage version. It has been adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian and what he does with the story and the script is brilliant. Radio plays were popular in an era predating television, and thus the aim was to stimulate the imagination by painting a ‘visual’ picture through audio narration, cues, and sounds. By hearing the narrative complete with different voices and the sound effects, your mind creates the visuals for you. In experiencing It’s a Wonderful Life
here, you can easily switch between watching the creation of the radio play on stage or closing your eyes and allowing the audio unravel the story for your mind.

The cast here does fine work with the script and with playing off each other in the performance. Prest as the lead role of George Bailey is human and lovable while Dennis as guardian angel-in-training Clarence is delightfully naive and bubbly in his eagerness to earn his wings. My theatre partner for the evening, Kayla, thoroughly enjoyed watching the kids — Richie Lawrence as young George and Thea Lapham as young Mary — take on their roles with plucky enthusiasm. One stand out for me was Ellie Moon, who played George’s cousin Tilly and a member of the chorus. Her versatility in creating voices, accents, and sound affects (watching her hover around a microphone mouthing buzzing sounds to mimic a passing plane) was a delight.

And if I haven’t emphasized it enough, the live sound effects used here are a wonderful touch; designer John Growski has done outstanding work, as has costume and set designers Lorenzo Savoini in recreating a 40s style radio broadcasting station.

The most delightful and unexpected addition to the performance were the “words from our sponsors,” and one of the very few times where throwing advertising into the stage show is not only forgiven, but has a home. As with any radio show there are commercials, recited here by the production’s cast of voice actors. The slick wink and nod to Telus as a sponsor and the inclusion of Soulpepper ads advertising their upcoming Family Festival and magic show Hocus Pocus received quite a few appreciative laughs from the audience.

It’s a Wonderful Life runs two hours with a 20 minute intermission, and as I often find with two act shows, the pacing falls short. The first half takes its time in exploring the life of George Bailey from childhood to present day before rapidly wrapping up post intermission. From what I’ve learned, the same happens in the movie, so I suppose that’s to be expected.

Simply put, It’s a Wonderful Life is a lot of fun to watch and indeed, your whole family will surely enjoy it, even from just the technical aspect of it being in the form of a radio play. If you’re looking for a different kind of holiday theatre, this is it. Their final performance is New Year’s Eve so be sure to book your tickets in soon.


Photo of Raquel Duffy, Gregory Prest, Derek Boyes, Thea Lapham, Richie Lawrence, Oliver Dennis, James Smith by Cylla von Tiedemann